HAMPDEN, Maine — They’ve won 42 of their 44 games during the last two seasons en route to the 2013 Class A state title and back-to-back Eastern Maine crowns.
They return a solid group of players with championship experience led by a Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team honoree, and have added a second All-Maine first teamer via transfer.
No wonder the Hampden Academy Broncos are seen as the team to beat by all its rivals in the annual Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A boys basketball coaches poll released in conjunction with the start of preseason practices this week.
Coach Russ Bartlett’s club was the No. 1 pick among the 13 KVAC teams that comprise Eastern Maine Class A, and while specifics within the poll weren’t released, it’s highly likely Hampden was a near-unanimous choice for the top spot.
The Broncos are coming off a 22-0 campaign in 2012-13 that concluded with a buzzer-beating 40-39 victory over Lawrence of Fairfield in the Eastern Maine final and a 45-41 win over South Portland in the state championship.
The returning Broncos are led by 6-foot-5 senior forward Zach Gilpin, a first-team BDN All-Maine choice last winter after averaging 15.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game and scoring 23 points in the state final. Gilpin is the reigning Eastern Maine Class A tournament most valuable player as well as the 2013 KVAC Class A North player of the year.
He’s joined by younger brother Nick Gilpin, a sophomore guard whose 30-footer at the buzzer gave Hampden its EM final win over Lawrence, and senior guard Cam Scott, one of the top perimeter defenders in the region.
Then there’s 6-4 wing Isaiah Bess, who transferred to Hampden for his senior year after leading Penquis Valley of Milo to the Class C state championship last winter.
Bess, who over the weekend signed a letter of intent accepting a basketball scholarship from Stonehill College, an NCAA Division II program in Easton, Mass., averaged 26.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game last season while earning first-team All-Maine honors after being named Eastern C tournament MVP.
But Bartlett is quick to remind his players and any other interested parties that this year’s team currently sports the same record — 0-0 — as all its challengers for the regional and state titles.
“We’ve been picked first in the preseason poll the past three years,” he said. “I feel like we understand the pressure that might come with that but we have a veteran group and understand that the poll means nothing.
“This particular group hasn’t won a game yet. We hope as the season progresses we’ll be able to play at a very high level.”
The Bangor Rams finished second in the coaches’ poll, followed by Messalonskee of Oakland, Edward Little of Auburn and Brunswick, with Oxford Hills of South Paris, Lewiston and Brewer rounding out the top eight.
Coach Ed Kohtala’s Bangor club, 13-6 a year ago, returns center Connor Adams and guard Alex Campbell from the 2012-2013 team that reached the regional quarterfinals. The Rams also regain the services of senior guard Xavier Lewis, who returns to the Bangor lineup after spending last year at Lawrence, where he helped the Bulldogs come within a split-second of the EM crown.
“Other major players this year will start with Bangor, for sure,” suggested Bartlett. “I also expect Messalonskee, EL and Brunswick to be very good. After that it will be wide open to see who fills out those other three tourney spots. It should be very exciting.”
Messalonskee, also a quarterfinalist last winter, will feature 6-7 Nick Mayo and guard Jordan Holmes, while Edward Little has been a regular contender for conference honors during the last decade. Leadership for the Red Eddies, who reached the EM semifinals last year with a 17-3 record, will come from 6-5 senior Andrew Middleton, a transfer from Class B Leavitt of Turner Center, classmate Lew Jensen and junior Ian Milekis.
Brunswick returns veterans Blake Gordon, Ryan Black and Derek Devereaux from last year’s EM quarterfinal team, while Luke Davidson and Andrew Fleming will lead an Oxford Hills team seeking to take a step forward after bowing out in the division’s lone preliminary-round game last February.
Lewiston went 13-7 last year, with coach Tim Farrar’s club reaching the EM semifinals before being ousted by Hampden. The Blue Devils’ roster will feature several quality veterans including seniors Carlos Gonzalez and Mohamed Mohamed and junior Isaiah Harris.
And Brewer, which just missed a tourney bid last year with a very young squad, returns a more experienced nucleus anchored by senior guard Brendan Newcomb as well as a returning presence on the sidelines in veteran coach Clayton Blood, who will begin his second stint with the Witches.
Other players to watch, according to the coaches, are Mitch Bonenfant and Ben Lucas of Cony of Augusta, Brad King of Lawrence, Shyheim Ulrickson and Mason Griffin of Mount Ararat of Topsham, Kindle Bonsall of Mt. Blue of Farmington and Isaac Witham and Eli Holland of Skowhegan.